One cannot talk about Africa and music in the same sentence and fail to mention Fela Kuti. After launching “The African Triangle” with a review of a recent release by our homebase’s Cairokee, it felt right to head about 4000 km south-west to Nigeria for our next post.
Nigeria hosts the largest population in Africa and has a thriving movie and music industry, one can go as far as to call it the musical capital of Africa. Just like Egypt once was (arguably still is) the media hub of the middle east, Nigeria is growing to take on a similar role within the continent. More musicians are emerging from Nigeria, crossing over into the western music scene and growing into international artist; Wizkid, Davido, Tekno and Yemi Alade – Lookout for future posts covering their journeys and featuring their music. But here, we will focus on the Godfather of Afrobeat – Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Fela (born – 15 Oct 1938) was a multi-instrumentalist (most famous for playing the saxophone) hailing from Abeokuta, Nigeria. He was born to a prominent family – his mother, a feminist activist and an anti-colonial protester and his father, a preacher, who was also the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers.
He moved to London in 1958 to study medicine but decided to study music instead and attended the The Trinity College of Music until 1961. The early 60s saw him establish his band “Koola Lobitos” performing a fusion of Jazz and highlife sounds(more on highlife in future posts). Fela continued to develop his sound whilst performing in Ghana and Nigeria and coined the term “Afrobeat” as a label for his sound. In 1969, he went on to tour to the USA. During his stay in the States, Fela met Sandra Smith – an American singer – who helped enlighten him on the African-American civil rights movement, politics, The Black Panther Party and Malcolm X. This greatly influenced his music and directed him to a more Africa-oriented context and sound.
Fela moved back to Nigeria, renamed his band “Afrika 70” – after briefly being Nigeria 70 while in the USA – and established the Kalakuta Republic; a compound like commune which he would later on declare as independent from the State. Other than being home to Fela and his associates’, Kalakuta also housed “The Afrika Shrine”, a night club where he would regularly perform and carry out traditional Yoruba rituals.
Fela’s music featured a lot of politics. His lyrics – often in Pidgin English in order for many to be able to enjoy and understand them – would comment on everyday social and political issues faced in Nigeria and Africa. He became a symbol of resistance and revolution through his music and performances. He called out corruption, colonialism and exploitation of fellow Africans. One of his most popular tracks is “Zombie“, an anti-military song released in 1977 with “Afrika 70” which triggered an attack on Kalakuta Republic where it was raided, burnt, residents (including Fela) beaten and his mother pushed through a window – leading to her death after the injuries she sustained. Fela spoke in an interview featured in the documentary “Finding Fela!” that he grown to expect being jailed every time he released a record. However, the attack that followed the release of “Zombie” was unprecedented and his mother’s death had a severe impact on him. His track “Coffin for Head of State” is named after the incident following his mother’s death where he marched with others carrying his mother’s coffin to the gates of the residence of General Olusegun Obasanjo – who was in office when the raid on Kalakuta republic occured – and left it there.
Fela was also notorious for his love of women. In 1978, he married 27 women at the same time in a ceremony which also marked the one year anniversary of the Kalakuta Republic raid. Fela referenced Yoruba tradition to support his choice of a polygynous lifestyle. Shortly after, Fela changed the name of his band to “Egypt 80” and released several records with them as well as embarked on international tours. A notable release by Fela and Egypt 80 is “Beasts of No Nation” – the track title inspired the Netflix production film by the same name starring Idris Elba.
In 1997, Fela Kuti was announced dead by his brother due to complications from HIV/AIDS. He was placed in a glass casket and over one million people paid their respects and said goodbye to him.
After his death, his youngest son Seun Kuti took over the band “Egypt 80” and currently performs and tours with them. Both Seun and his older brother Femi Kuti play the saxophone and sing. Their songs, like their father’s, are also a depiction of African consciousness, social commentary, politics and pan-africanism. Look out for posts featuring their music soon.
Every year a festival is held in honour of Fela’s life called “Felabration” established in 1998 by his son and daughter, Femi and Yeni Kuti. It takes place in Lagos at “The New Afrika Shrine” a 2500 capacity venue and features performances by many artists including The Kutis.
Fela Kuti – the pioneer of Afrobeat – an inspiration to many in Africa and around the globe. His legacy lives on beyond the borders of Nigeria and the power of his music is celebrated and lives on.
More tracks to listen to by Fela Kuti :-
Africa Centre of the World (with Roy Ayers)